Tag Archives: History

Walking through history, or today would be a good day to be in Budapest

I haven’t posted a Monday travel reflection in a while, but today I’m thinking I’d love to go back to the city of Budapest for another wander. Hungary is still a country I admit to knowing very little about – culture, history, food, people. But I truly loved spending a few days walking the streets of its capital city and getting just a tiny glimpse of some of those things.

One thing I’ve learned about myself through travel is that I make sense of a place by walking it. And walking helps me connect with its history too. Imagining those who have walked before, gaining insight into their lives and experiences, never fails to inspire, challenge, move and teach me.

What did I love about Budapest?

The architecture.

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The Hungarian Parliament building on the Pest side of the Danube is stunning …

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… as is the Castle on the Buda side.

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Linking the two sides of the city are a number of bridges, including the impressive Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

There are beautiful churches …

… as well the lovingly restored Dohány Street Synagogue.

Nationalistic pride is on display in different ways from the military memorial at Heroes Square,

to the reliquary supposedly holding St Stephen’s right hand in the Basilica.

I’m a bibliophile, and Budapest had one of the best and most beautiful bookcafes I have ever been to, the Alexandra Bookcafe, although sadly it has apparently recently closed.

What did I learn from Budapest?

What you can’t miss wandering the streets of this city are the memorials everywhere. Testaments to not just life, but death and brutality. Those who were “disappeared” under the Soviet regime.

Those who were deliberately and publicly exterminated en masse.

Jews have a long history in Hungary, and made up almost a quarter of the population at the beginning of World War II. Up to three quarters of these people did not survive the war.

 

I’ve been to a number of Holocaust Museums around the world, but found Budapest’s one of the most moving, with its honest accounts of the harrowing story and lists of thousands upon thousands of names.

It is housed in a renovated synagogue, and at the back of the prayer hall there are ‘ghost seats’ for the members of the congregation who did not return.

In the Jewish cemetery, Imre Varga’s weeping willow statue bearing the family names of murdered Jews is hauntingly beautiful.

For me personally, perhaps most affecting was the memorial called “Shoes on the Danube River” which marks the spot where 3,500 people were ordered to take off their shoes before they were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militia.

I’ve been similarly moved by piles of shoes at Auschwitz in Poland and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. There is something simply profound in imagining the lives of those who once walked in a pair that has been left behind.

How does that speak into how I think about where my shoes will be walking this day?

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Today would be a good day to be in Petra

Petra makes it on to plenty of lists of places you ‘must see before you die’ and ‘wonders of the world.’ It has appeared in numerous movies and books. It certainly is a beautiful and impressive place. It is somewhere I could easily revisit as I’m sure there is much more to explore. It is an impressive looking place! But as I reflect on it today, I’m also realising that the time I’ve spent there hasn’t really left me with much of a lasting impression of what it means or who it represents.

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What did I love about Petra?

Petra was unknown to the western world until the early 1800s and its not hard to see why. Looking out over the rugged landscape, it is difficult for those of us unused to this kind of region to imagine such a city is to be found hidden in there.

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Petra is sometimes called “The Rose City” due to the colour of the rocks. They are absolutely stunning, whether from far away or close up.

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The entrance to the site is through a 1.2km long siq, or narrow gorge. Along it runs the remains of an ancient aqueduct, as well as some carvings such as this worn image of a camel caravan.

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There is a moment all travellers experience of seeing the impressive Treasury building suddenly come in to view through the narrow chasm of the siq that has a “wow” factor like few other places in the world.

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The treasury building (Al-Khazneh) is Petra’s most recognisable image and standing in front of it certainly provokes awe. Interestingly, however, it is basically a façade. There is nothing inside but an empty, uncarved room. My understanding is that rather than a storehouse for treasure as the name suggests, it was a mausoleum, a place to honour the dead.

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The theatre in Petra is at first glance similar to many Roman theatres I’ve seen elsewhere … until you realise that while they were built using rocks, this was carved out of the existing rocks. I love the idea that like Michelangelo who could see a stunning statue of David in a lump on rock, the Nabateans who built this place could imagine and then create this from the natural material already there.

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What did I learn from Petra?

Each time I have been to Petra I have seen new things – both because I have walked into new corners of the site, and because new parts of the site have been uncovered by archaeologists.

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Amongst the guides I’ve had, there is some debate about whether some of the rock hewn dwellings were houses or tombs, places for the living or for the dead. Either way, the time and skill displayed by these people (without modern tools!) is impressive.

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Petra was home to the Nabateans and it remains their primary legacy. Unlike the Romans, whose structures and artefacts are found all over the place, it is really the only thing they are remembered for. For me, however, it seems a somewhat confusing legacy – raising more questions than answers about who they were and what they valued and why they did what they did.

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So like many ancient sites, Petra reminds me that what we leave behind in this world, impressive as it may be, can never capture the complexity of who we are and how we live. That is found only in our relationships and our impact on other people, which cannot be seen in our structures or possessions or bank accounts …

sunsetAs the sun sets over Petra above, as the sun sets at the end of each day, its worth asking the question of how we are investing ourselves in the things that will truly last. Am I working on things that merely look impressive or investing in that which has greater substance and ongoing influence? Because one day the sun will set on my life, and I’m not sure I’d want people to look at what is left behind and think “Looks great, but what does it mean?”

Today would be a good day to be in Salisbury, UK (or the difference between space and place)

My sister reminded me this week of some of the places we have travelled together over the years. So in thinking about where I’d love to be spending time this Monday, I decided to reflect on a place we visited together ten years ago. Salisbury in the UK is well known for two of its stone structures: Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. It is also home to the site of Old Sarum, a settlement dating back some 5,000 years. We were particularly excited to stumble upon this site, as we both read the book Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd while in high school after it was recommended by our beloved Pa. It remains on my list of favourite reads. With the areas around Salisbury as its setting, the novel tells the history of those who lived there from ancient to modern times, bringing this place to life.

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What did I love about Salisbury?

I love the lush green beauty of the English countryside, even on a grey day!

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The river with its swans was particularly picturesque.

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I loved seeing the remains of the ancient site (Sarum) …

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… as well as its view towards the more ‘modern’ (but still quaint) town (Salisbury).

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What did I learn from Salisbury?

Salisbury is full of beautiful spaces. But it also makes me think about the difference between space and place. Space, to my mind, is the more abstract concept of physical location generally. Place, a subset of space, is that which has been named and given significance and meaning. Place matters because of what has happened in that particular space. And so while I loved the beautiful spaces around Salisbury, it is the significance of its places that has me remembering and pondering it today.

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Stonehenge is a place, one that obviously had meaning and significance to those who established it, even though we still can’t seem to figure out exactly what!

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Sarum is a place, one that has significance because of how early and how long it has been settled.

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Salisbury Cathedral is a place, one that has a 750 year history of worship and reverence for the people of God.

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And Salisbury, for me, is a place, because of the time I shared there with my sister. We laughed together over our visit to Woodhenge, a place far less popular with tourists than its rock-hewn cousin. (Note to ancient monument builders, if you to be well-remembered, try to build with materials that last!)

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And we cried together in Salisbury Cathedral, as we prayed for some of the difficult situations in life we were experiencing at the time.

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And its that experience that perhaps even makes Salisbury a sacred place for me – a place where my sister and I met together in the presence of our God and knew His mercy and love upon us. I believe that can happen anywhere, and everywhere. But I also know that sometimes it is important to mark out that kind of place,  to place a physical or metaphorical stone of remembrance there (a common practice throughout the Old Testament), so that we don’t forget. And I think that is really why I’m remembering Salisbury today.